Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

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maestrob
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Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Wed Jan 21, 2015 1:05 pm

It's a stellar topic, and controversial, comparing old favorites to modern renditions of certain standard repertoire. While it's impossible to list all recordings, perhaps I could give a few examples and offer MHO on them.

Mahler's "Resurrection" Symphony comes immediately to mind. I grew up with Ormandy's set of 78RPM discs, and, of course, was bowled over by the immensity of the piece, but dissatisfied by side interruptions and limited sonics.

Along came Bernstein and Solti a decade later or so. Somehow, I felt that Solti's London recording (which I had on both LP and reel-to-reel tape) captured the sense of the piece better than did Bernstein, who lacked the sense of tempo discipline that Solti displayed. Also the London sonics were superior to Columbia's rather grey sound (at least on LP).

Then came Zubin Mehta w/Vienna, which was very good, but the Vienna musicians lacked the discipline of Solti's London forces: attacks were sloppy and cut-offs were soft-edged: this a trademark of Vienna's sound, but Solti did better with Vienna in other repertoire and so did Szell. A good recording, but not the best for me.

Enter Bernstein/Vienna on Laserdisc. A fine reading, but I still felt that Bernstein didn't quite have the tempo right in the first movement, so I felt dissatisfied by that as well as Vienna's brass, which didn't hold up in the climaxes. So, thumbs down.

At this point I still preferred Solti/London. Then, along came Abbado/Chicago, which earned high praise indeed. In my mind, this recording equaled Solti's London recording in quality, no doubt. This was a new Mahler conductor to watch.

At long last, just recently, Abbado released his DVD of his Lucerne performance of this great symphony, and to my ears, excelled or at least equaled his Chicago performance with better sonics and a deeply committed rendering of the music. For obvious reasons, this is now my go-to performance of the "Resurrection" Symphony.

It's my thesis that the best modern recordings equal or sometimes surpass recordings of the past. This is just one example of my argument: more to come as we continue. I've left out many other recordings: this is just a sample of the more significant readings I've heard.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Wed Jan 21, 2015 3:29 pm

So much of this is about taste, but that's not all there is to it, at least not from my point of view. I can't help noticing that your list omits two recordings with special claims, since their conductors were approved by the composer: Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer. (There are several recordings by Klemperer, but I'm referring to the EMI studio version.) Their recordings of the Resurrection are quite unlike each other, and we have no good reason to believe that either replicates Mahler's way with the symphony. However, both seem to me to "speak the language" of the music like a native, while Bernstein, Solti, and especially Abbado come at the music from outside, through the notes on the page, regardless of history and tradition.

It may be that you give no weight to performance tradition. Mahler is said to have exclaimed, in exasperation, "Tradition ist Schlamperei!" (Tradition is sloppiness.) No doubt he was dealing with an orchestra that was making excuses not to play a piece in his way, rather than the way they said they had always done it. And there's the canard that tradition is the last bad performance. But I say that is wrong-headed, and indeed just plain wrong. There is more to making music than can be notated in even the most exact score.

If you want to hear something like Mahler's own manner of performance, the closest to it on records is Willem Mengelberg's performance of the 4th symphony and a few other Mahler works. His approach is as different as can be imagined from the likes of Abbado, Solti, and even Bernstein, whose nuances are personal with him and have nothing to do with how the music was performed before he was born. If you haven't heard Mengelberg's Mahler 4th, here it is in a live performance.



Mengelberg marked his own copy of the score with instructions Mahler gave the Concertgebouw Orchestra when rehearsing the symphony for an Amsterdam concert. No doubt the details of Mahler's performances were quite different from Mengelberg's some 35 years later, but this performance corresponds well with descriptions of Mahler's performance style.

There's also a highly inflected acoustic recording of the Resurrection Symphony conducted by Oskar Fried, who received direct instruction from Mahler about how the symphony ought to go, but the sound is so dim that only those who care about performance traditions should have this one inflicted on them. :)
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by josé echenique » Wed Jan 21, 2015 8:44 pm

My first Resurrections bought when I was 13 or so, were Bernstein´s LSO version, better recorded than his earlier CBS version, but still the over reverberant acoustics of the Ely Cathedral not really satisfactory, and the VPO/Mehta, which sonically at the time, I thought awesome.
I also loved the singers in both recordings, Janet Baker & Sheila Armstrong in the first and Christa Ludwig & Ileana Cotrubas in the second, both Urlichts breathtakingly beautiful.
Now of course I prefer other recordings for many reasons, but those 2 still have my affection for introducing a receptive kid to Mahler´s Second.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Thu Jan 22, 2015 12:07 am

JohnF:

Of course we're talking about personal taste here. That goes without saying. In fact, Copland complimented Bernstein on the latter's recording of his Third Symphony, saying it was better than his own with the London Symphony. I agree.

My point in starting this topic is that we generally do better now than in the past: to my ears and taste, anyway. I deliberately left out both Klemperer and Walter's recordings because a)They don't appeal to me and b) I knew someone else would bring them up. Why don't they appeal to me? Poor tempo choices and undisciplined playing. I never knew that Klemperer was approved by Mahler, but I do know that Walter learned the Ninth and Das Lied von der Erde by working on them with the composer, and that connection shows in Walter's glorious early sixties recordings of both works. Why Walter's recording of the Resurrection is such a miss is beyond my knowledge: I only know that I don't care for it.

Klemperer was a far better Bruckner conductor than he was a Mahler conductor, IMHO.

One last point: composers are rarely the best performers of their own music. I can think of several recordings of Walton I that are better than the composer's own rendition. Mahler, being a professional conductor, may have been an exception, of course: sadly, we have no way of knowing through recordings.

Thank you for the Mahler IV: I'll listen tomorrow and refresh my memory.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Thu Jan 22, 2015 3:53 am

If you don't care for the Walter and Klemperer recordings, fair enough. But it's extraordinary that you should dismiss the recording by Bruno Walter, one of the conductors most closely associated with Mahler professionally and personally (Mengelberg was the other), for "poor tempo choices." On what basis other than your personal taste have you arrived at such a judgment? And what will you make of the Mengelberg Mahler 4th?

Walter's association with Mahler goes way back before the premieres of the 9th Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde, which of course Walter never heard him conduct. Mahler brought Walter to the Vienna Court Opera in 1901 at the age of 25, where he was assigned many performances of a broad repertoire until Mahler's departure; before that Mahler had gotten him positions at smaller German houses. Mahler was his mentor. For this reason if no other, Walter's Mahler interpretations - including that of the 2nd symphony, whatever the incidental shortcomings of the playing - have a unique authority which none of those on your preferred list can claim.

From what you've said I have to conclude that you're an anti-traditionalist, and if so, then our artistic viewpoints are not just different but opposed. This is a different topic from my comment in another thread that "In my view, most of the new recordings released in the past decade are redundant and artistically needless." (I didn't say worthless.) That is of course an expression of personal taste. In this thread, however, I've brought up a different issue, one based not merely on personal taste but on actual evidence, such as biography and historic recordings - which are definitely not the same thing as "historically informed" recordings, based on musicological inference, but the genuine article.

(It's ironic that in this age of supposed historically informed performance, musicians nonetheless ignore the historical evidence of the composer's own recordings when these exist. Richard Taruskin demonstrated this by playing Prokofiev's recording of his gavotte for piano, op. 32 no. 3, followed by that of a respected modern Prokofiev player, Boris Berman. Berman plays the piece perfectly with metronomic exactness - you could transcribe his recording and have an accurate score. But listen to Prokofiev:



Prokofiev was an outstanding pianist, and his quirky tempo fluctuations can't be attributed to poor technique. Rather, it's his view not just of how his music should go but of what his music is. One might complain that if so, then Prokofiev should have notated it in his score. To which the only answer is, how? Taruskin concluded that in performance today we respect only texts, not traditions and not even composers.)

It's true that most composers are not also outstanding conductors, just as most conductors are not outstanding composers. Now and then, however, a musician may be both; Leonard Bernstein was an example in our lifetimes, and Mahler was universally considered a great conductor in his time, as was Richard Strauss. Even with composers who are only occasional conductors, unless they are actually incompetent, their performances of their own music have an authority that no others can claim. They should be listened to with the attention and respect one has for their music, rather than reduced to a-b comparisons with others' recordings, however excellent in their own way. And so, I think, should recordings by performers other than the composers whose music making embodies the traditions and styles of the composers' times as received orally and aurally, not by reading treatises.

At least that's what I firmly believe. As an anti-traditionalist (if that's what you are), you may believe that all performances should be heard and assessed on exactly the same footing, as if they were anonymous, and only the sounds that reach your ears matter. (Or you may not believe that, I don't want to put words in your mouth but rather understand where you're coming from.) This is a widespread and thoroughly modern view, and it may well predominate. But it most definitely is not mine.
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by bigshot » Thu Jan 22, 2015 1:30 pm

I can understand the value of correct tempo and rhythmic precision, but Mahler isn't the place that I demand that. The music requires a certain freedom to open up the emotional level of the music. Emotional phrasing isn't the same thing as undisciplined at all. I don't have any ideal for Mahler performances. I find value in just about any of the major recordings (except perhaps Solti who always sounds too rigid and strident and not flowing enough.) Viva le difference!

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Thu Jan 22, 2015 2:28 pm

Anti-traditionalist? That's an interesting label, and one that I might agree with, but I'm not quite sure. Was Toscanini a non-traditionalist (I like his conducting a lot, usually)? I'm NOT a Furtwangler fan usually, altho I admire his Wagner very much. Hmmmmm. Food for thought.

As for Prokofiev's playing, his recording of his own Third Piano Concerto reveals a new tempo for every musical idea, which I find fascinating, and certainly NOT the way it's done today, as exemplified by Szell/Graffman or Jarvi/Gutierrez. Fact is, I preferred Szell when I first heard it, and still find Coppola/Prokofiev unsettling. Again, de gustibus. If an example like this makes me an anti-traditionalist, then I happily accept the label.

Frankly, it makes no sense to me, the idea that every performance should be an exact duplicate of what the composer did: where's the room for interpretation? The whole point of being a musician is that you have something of your own to say about the music you're performing, while remaining true to the musical score. Toscanini's idea of a steady tempo works for me because it allows harmonic and dynamic evolution to convey the drama of a score, and it certainly has caught on, hasn't it?

Today's artists generally take a reasonably steady tempo and interpret using tone quality and dynamics (especially pianists). I just like that approach. We don't agree, that's obvious, but it's a fascinating topic. Music evolves, and so do ideas about how to perform music. I think of the ideal performance as having the poetic discipline of a Shakespeare sonnet: Solti's Brahms Symphonies come immediately to mind. There is plenty of ebb and flow, but the overall arch of the music is never broken.

This is not to say that I don't have the utmost respect for other efforts/interpretations. All I can do here is say what I agree with, but I do not dismiss anything that any great conductor does lightly. What I do know is that even the greatest musicians have off-nights, and every conductor either one of could name has some great recordings and others that miss the mark, for whatever reason. IOW, not every recording perfectly realizes a conductor's vision. I wonder if Walter himself was satisfied with his own recording of Mahler II? And if he wasn't, I doubt that he would say so publicly.

bigshot:

I'm surprised that you find Solti rigid. I find him very flexible (within reason). Compare his Brahms Symphonies to Chailly's recent set, which I do not like because of its rigidity. Vive la difference, as you say.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Thu Jan 22, 2015 3:59 pm

maestrob wrote:Frankly, it makes no sense to me, the idea that every performance should be an exact duplicate of what the composer did.
I've said no such thing. What I have said is that when we have a composer's or other authoritative performance of a piece of music, this should not be ignored or casually dismissed - as you did with Bruno Walter's Resurrection Symphony. I've made my argument for this view and won't belabor it.
maestrob wrote:where's the room for interpretation? The whole point of being a musician is that you have something of your own to say about the music you're performing, while remaining true to the musical score.
What does it mean, to "remain true to the musical score", and how does the composer's own performance relate to that? If, for example, it means making no tempo changes except those explicitly marked in the score, when we know that the composer's interpretation of the same music was extraordinarily free, what should we be faithful to? Do we play the Prokofiev gavotte in strict time, because the score he had published doesn't say otherwise, or do we take Prokofiev's recording as a guide to the music's character, liberating us from slavish adherence to the score, and express that character in our own individual way? Seems to me that my view allows a great deal more room for interpretation than yours does.
maestrob wrote:Toscanini's idea of a steady tempo works for me because it allows harmonic and dynamic evolution to convey the drama of a score, and it certainly has caught on, hasn't it?
Indeed it has caught on, as I acknowledged, but not for the reason you give. Rather, I think, it was because the intensity of a typical Toscanini performance, its usually faster-than-average tempos ("the average" referring to the musical environment of the first half of the last century), and the brilliantly precise playing he beat out of his orchestras, are exciting in themselves. Without the Toscanini high voltage, interpretive literalism can be deadly.

Of course you can prefer any kind of interpretation you like. I haven't accused you of bad taste. :) But I'm not talking about taste at all. I'm talking about diversity of interpretive approaches, and making a case that the kind of post-Wagnerian freedom characteristic of Romantic musicians of the first half of the 20th century - Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Stokowski, et al. - is not a sin against the music, as many critics used to insist, but an exploration of expressive possibilities beyond the narrow and in my view simplistic range allowed by the literalism that eventually took over and still dominates our musical lives.
maestrob wrote:I wonder if Walter himself was satisfied with his own recording of Mahler II? And if he wasn't, I doubt that he would say so publicly.
Of course he was, for the most part, or he wouldn't have approved it for publication. Walter was a thorough professional and knew how to get what he wanted. Many musicians including Toscanini have been dissatisfied with their own recordings, even the ones they have allowed to be released. But not Walter. Indeed, when Columbia wanted him to rerecord his core repertory in stereo, he objected. "Would it not be a waste of precious time and strength to remake for instance those works of Brahms (to whose Third Symphony I listened yesterday with satisfaction)? Do you not prefer ... to increase our repertoire, instead of decreasing it by depreciating our former records of Brahms and implicitly many records of the same vintage? I think in this way we would have condemned our whole former work to obsolescence." He listed works he wanted to record for the first time, such as the Bruckner 8th symphony, the Mahler 3rd, several symphonies of Schumann and Mendelssohn. Instead we have remakes of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.

No doubt there are passages here and there in the Resurrection that Walter might have liked to do over. The sessions were difficult; they were interrupted after completion of the second movement when Walter suffered a heart attack. But when he resumed work on the symphony a year later, he left the first two movements as they were and recorded only the last three. You may be dissatisfied with the results - in fact you've said you are - but Walter evidently was not.
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by Lance » Thu Jan 22, 2015 9:23 pm

Wow, this is a GREAT subject. I'm not even sure how or where to start, however!!!
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Thu Jan 22, 2015 11:53 pm

JohmF said:

No doubt there are passages here and there in the Resurrection that Walter might have liked to do over. The sessions were difficult; they were interrupted after completion of the second movement when Walter suffered a heart attack. But when he resumed work on the symphony a year later, he left the first two movements as they were and recorded only the last three. You may be dissatisfied with the results - in fact you've said you are - but Walter evidently was not.

Maestrob says:
That's very sad about Walter's heart attack. That said, I also wish he had made the recording under better conditions and in better health, even if it had been monophonic. I will say that his recordings of Mahler IX and Das Lied are exemplary, and have a special place in my heart, as are his stereo readings of Bruckner IV, VII, and IX. The stereo Brahms Symphonies really are not worth repeated listening, but his Brahms Requiem is first-rate (mono).

As I said, every conductor has his off days, and what you said about Mahler II sort of awakens my suspicions that he was not at his best for that recording.

I still like Solti & Abbado better, along with Levine and Alan Gilbert's recent televised concert of Mahler II.

Oh, and I don't dismiss Walter's recording lightly. I thought I made that clear previously. My opinion comes from many years (literally a lifetime) of study and listening, as does yours. :)

Lance:

Do jump in the pool, we're having a great time! :lol:

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Fri Jan 23, 2015 12:47 am

Now I think I'll babble on some more about performance traditions and anti-tradition.

The modern approach to musical interpretation, exemplified by Toscanini's come scritto performances, is inherently anti-traditionalist, and not just in matters of tempo. Recordings of Mozart provide clear-cut examples. Rudolf Serkin's recordings of many concertos, which I grew up with and still think very highly of, ignore the tradition originating with Mozart himself of providing a cadential flourish, an "Eingang," when the music pauses at a fermata - even though Mozart wrote out some Eingänge for his sister to play. (They weren't included in the concertos' full scores because Mozart improvised them in his own performances.) Today it jars me when the orchestra stops and then, after a brief silence, restarts with no transition from the pianist. But I still listen to Serkin's recordings with pleasure, more than with most of today's pianists whose playing, especially in slow movements, often strikes me as cold and heartless.

Another example is the famous 1930s Glyndebourne Festival recordings of Mozart operas conducted by Fritz Busch, which critics regarded as exemplary for generations. Busch insisted that every note in the published scores be sung and played exactly as written, and as a result there are no appoggiaturas anywhere in the three operas he recorded. At the same time, Ezio Pinza was singing Don Giovanni and Figaro under Bruno Walter with every appoggiatura in place as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Pinza couldn't read music, he learned his parts by ear from the coaches and conductors he worked with, and he absorbed performance traditions the way traditions are always transmitted, orally.

Today the historically informed performance movement has laboriously reinstated such performance practices as Eingänge and appoggiaturas. This is one of the few effects of HIP which I actually like. But it's done not to revive lost traditions but as a matter of scholarly historical correctness. In a world of literal musical performance, it seems a scholarly case must be made for any departure from the musical text using historical evidence such as treatises and books of instruction written at about the same time as the music. HIP intellectualizes what, in tradition-guided performances, is instinctive. HIP is inherently anti-traditional.

Traditions are not engraved in stone. They evolve with the times, and I'm sure Ezio Pinza's appoggiaturas aren't exactly the same as Mozart's original singers', though of course we can never know that. When I speak of performances that are informed by tradition, then, I'm not talking about imitations of any one authoritative performance or recording, even if by the composer himself. Such a thing couldn't be done before sound recordings made it possible to repeat the same identical performance time and time again, even to memorize it if one wished.

No, tradition does not prescribe a particular interpretation, the way literal adherence to a musical text does. Nor is it limited to conventions such as Eingänge and appoggiatura, though these are certainly an aspect of it. Rather, traditions are approaches and indeed attitudes toward music making that have been transmitted through the generations, not out of inertia or laziness but because they have expressive and artistic value. That many were killed off by modernistic literalism has been, for me, a great loss. That's why I listen to old recordings and post YouTube clips of them here - to recapture a more diverse, fuller, and richer experience of music than most of today's performers can provide.
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Fri Jan 23, 2015 9:59 am

That was really helpful, JohnF. Thank you. I see better now where you're coming from, and I also see where we might have some agreement, especially about HIP performances, which I find very interesting. I'll bring up an example now that shows that I'm not as rigid as you may think in my likes and dislikes: Shostakovich V.

Easily Shostakovich's most popular symphony, this could even be the most popular twentieth century symphony, period. That gives us lots of recordings to discuss, so I'll limit my list again to the most significant IMHO:

Mravinsky/Leningrad Post WWII mono and 1967 stereo/Leningrad
Bernstein 1959/1975
Rozhdestvensky stereo
Kondrashin 1960's stereo
Kertesz/Suisse Romande stereo
Solti 1990's stereo
Jansons 1997 stereo
Petrenko
Caetani

These recordings fit neatly into 3 categories, due to differing interpretations of the final movement: 1) Those that follow the tempo in the score, (Mravinsky mono, Rozhdestvensky, Kondrashin: 2) Those that take Bernstein's faster tempo (Bernstein 1959/1975, Mravinsky 1967) and, 3) Hybrids, which move back and forth between the two ideas, both of whom received the blessing of the composer, btw.

First, let me say that of this list, the only three that I find ineffective are Petrenko, Mravinsky mono and Jansons. MHO, of course, but postwar Leningrad lacks discipline and exhibits some truly sloppy playing: the 1967 rendering is quite awesome in its discipline and power, and Mravinsky falls under Bernstein's spell in the last movement most effectively. (Of course historically the mono Mravinsky is a must-have, but I don't return to it often.) Jansons take is a hybrid that tries valiantly, but ultimately fails to hold musical tension. Petrenko's version is, sadly, a cartoon characterization of the symphony that simply tries too hard: overblown and bloated, I'm very sorry to say that my opinion of this recording, in spite of Petrenko's valiant and excellent efforts in the rest of his cycle, is very negative. Petrenko's ideas simply don't work for me: tempi slow and lethargic, weak strings with no body in the third movement, and an overly bombastic fourth movement that registers in my mind as a cartoonish slap in the face to Stalin, rather than a serious endeavor. I could go on, but you get my drift here.

Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky follow Shostakovich rigorously, and they both make an excellent case for the composer's original ideas. Compelling, electrifying readings, both conductors satisfy my instincts for a successful performance, with good discipline and inspired playing from their admittedly rougher orchestral forces.

Bernstein in both readings, is chock full of little hesitations and musicality: identical in character in both recordings, Bernstein's deeply committed interpretation is a standout that has always been in the catalog, at least the 1959 version. 1975 (Sony's first digital commercial release) was taken from a live telecast in Tokyo, coupled with Schumann I in the video release, both of which are great performances (the Schumann corrects a tempo error Bernstein made in his LP release of the same symphony). Bernstein was known to beg for extra rehearsal time from his orchestra, and it shows in these beautifully polished performances.

Kertesz is a hugely interesting performance. He inspires the Suisse Romande forces to new heights with brilliant ideas of his own throughout, subtle touches that strip away mannerisms yet further the musicality of the score. The last movement is particularly original in its tempo choices: highly recommended, this persuasive recording has recently been reissued on Testament, and is thus available again. A very worthy go.

Solti is again a hybrid, and was very well received when it was first issued two decades ago. The Vienna players are inspired, and Solti gets all his tempi spot on IMHO. A very fine release well worth your attention.

My original point in starting this thread was that current recordings equal or surpass older releases in quality. Oleg Caetani and Vassily Petrenko both have proven my point with excellent Shostakovich cycles, and Caetani doesn't disappoint here with a rip-roaring rendition of Shostakovich's most popular symphony. Musical and well-disciplined, this sonically superior release did not disappoint me in any way, and is fully worthy to stand next to it's more famous predecessors.

All of the above is MHO, of course, and discussion is welcome! :)
Last edited by maestrob on Sat Jan 24, 2015 10:55 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by Heck148 » Fri Jan 23, 2015 11:48 pm

maestrob wrote:Solti is again a hybrid, and was very well received when it was first issued two decades ago. The Chicago players are inspired, and Solti gets all his tempi spot on IMHO. A very fine release well worth your attention.
Sollti's Shost# 5 is with VPO isn't it?? He did a #9 with them too, IIRC.[/quote]

I heard a live Shost #5 last Spring with Jaap Van Zweden conducting CSO @ Orchestra Hall - this was a terrific performance, very well conducted...Van Zweden built tremendous tension and release in the first mvt - in the finale, he went by the score - started a little slower, then accelerated as indicated...He didn't drag out the very end, which is good, because the brass players will run "out of gas" if it is taken too slow, and drawn out.
I heard Masur conduct NYPO in this work in Boston Sym Hall - overall, a very fine performance- but he dragged the ending out too long....it loses its wallop if the brass players are forced to sustain at FFF for so long...

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Sat Jan 24, 2015 6:11 am

Thanks, maestrob - that's very interesting, and I'll add a bit more to it shortly.

First I want to acknowledge that as a conductor yourself, you have your own interpretive profile to which you are quite rightly committed, as a listener like me doesn't need to be. That's one major difference between performers and critics: the former have to be committed to their way with a piece of music, otherwise how can they play or sing it with conviction? Though of course they may change their minds, and some like Josef Hofmann are said never to have played a piece the same way twice. While critics should be open-minded and receptive to diverse interpretations and approaches, not to everything that comes along but to those which, according to their own views, convey the essence of the music and ideally also reveal aspects of it that other performers haven't. That's why B.H. Haggin was a lousy critic: he didn't just appreciate Toscanini and Artur Schnabel, he deified them (to use your word), and others were always judged in comparison, usually invidious, with Haggin's musical gods.

Despite how it may seem, I have limits to what I can accept in an interpretation, and Mengelberg tests those limits and often shoots past them. His recordings of Beethoven, for example, often involve pulling and pushing of tempo that to me just seems wacky, and I've no idea what he means by it. An example is the first movement of Beethoven 1 in a Concertgebouw Orchestra recording. But in music of his own time - notably "Ein Heldenleben," which Strauss dedicated to him and which he recorded magnificently with the New York Philharmonic, and Mahler. You've made no comment yet on his Mahler 4th, and I don't expect you to like it, but I'd hoped you might find it ear-opening and even instructive.

Back to Shostakovich 5. Your list of recordings omits my favorite, by Rostropovich with the National Symphony Orchestra on DG. It is full of interpretive ideas and nuances that no other recording has, and unlike Leonard Bernstein who also has interpretive ideas of his own, Rostropovich was very close to the composer, personally and artistically and culturally, so his interpretations of music by his Soviet contemporaries did not come out of the blue.

In the first movement, at the march episode (poco sostenuto), Rostropovich begins a gradual acceleration long before Shostakovich's poco stringendo, building up speed like a train running over a cliff (the descending musical line suggests this to me), then takes the crushing statement of the main theme in the heavy brass slower than Shostakovich's "a tempo." That recording isn't on YouTube, but a 1990 National Symphony performance on tour to Moscow is; here Rostropovich begins to accelerate much earlier, before the march, at 7:53.



What Rostropovich has done is take Shostakovich's score markings as indications of the character of the music and expressed that character vividly and powerfully by when and how he executes those instructions. For me this is creative interpretation at its most compelling, and it's what made Rostropovich's music-making different from other musicians' and, in my view, special and treasurable.

As for the 4th movement, here it is, beginning allegro non troppo but at the accelerando poco a poco it's off to the races! I'll leave any comments to you and whoever else wants to join in.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sat Jan 24, 2015 10:53 am

Heck148 wrote:
maestrob wrote:Solti is again a hybrid, and was very well received when it was first issued two decades ago. The Chicago players are inspired, and Solti gets all his tempi spot on IMHO. A very fine release well worth your attention.
Sollti's Shost# 5 is with VPO isn't it?? He did a #9 with them too, IIRC.
I heard a live Shost #5 last Spring with Jaap Van Zweden conducting CSO @ Orchestra Hall - this was a terrific performance, very well conducted...Van Zweden built tremendous tension and release in the first mvt - in the finale, he went by the score - started a little slower, then accelerated as indicated...He didn't drag out the very end, which is good, because the brass players will run "out of gas" if it is taken too slow, and drawn out.
I heard Masur conduct NYPO in this work in Boston Sym Hall - overall, a very fine performance- but he dragged the ending out too long....it loses its wallop if the brass players are forced to sustain at FFF for so long...[/quote]

:oops: Of course you're right about Vienna: call it a senior moment! I'll correct the record.

Masur was not my favorite conductor, not least of which because he couldn't use a baton. Working without a baton in my experience causes one to lose control at crucial moments and requires more rehearsal. It can work sometimes in not very complex music (Dudamel led a fine Verdi Requiem in a recent telecast), but I prefer the communications clarity and control possibilities of a baton.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sat Jan 24, 2015 12:30 pm

JohnF:

Thank you for the Rostropovich. That live performance was wonderful, especially the heroic ending of the fourth movement. I don't agree with what he did in the first movement, but have to concede that it was effective music-making if a bit fast for my taste. As for the last movement, he's definitely in the hybrid category, and also tremendously effective. Rostropovich was famously humble about his conducting abilities: here, he need make no apologies.

As far as staking out a position of my own on interpretation, of course I would start with Kondrashin and Rozhdestvensky as models in my first recording, and perhaps do it Bernstein's way in the fourth movement in a later second reading, the way Mravinsky did. I'm not totally comfortable with the hybrid approach for myself, but in working with the score, I might at a later date develop my own ideas. What's fascinating about Shostakovich V is the range of possibilities. Mravinsky famously stated that he gave up asking Shostakovich about what was the correct tempo for the music: what Shostakovich wanted, like all composers, was an effective performance.

There is no one right way to perform this or any other music. Brahms made that clear when he refused to put metronome markings in his scores.

That said, I still, as a conductor, have my preferences. :)

BTW: My preference for Mahler IV is Szell/Raskin.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sat Jan 31, 2015 12:07 pm

Toscanini wins hands down in the interpretation department with his Beethoven Symphonies, in spite of individual accounts and the controversial "too fast" tempo marking in the last movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Here's a list of conductors to be discussed:

Toscanini
Furtwangler
Ormandy
Muti
Rattle
Gardiner
van immerseel
Szell/Cleveland
Bernstein/NY
von Karajan (1963)
Chailly's latest set

The list can be broken down into three categories: Traditional big orchestra (Muti, Rattle, Ormandy, Furtwangler), Toscanini's leaner approach on modern instruments (Bernstein/NY, Szell/Cleveland, HVK), and HIP attempts (Gardiner, van Immerseel, Chailly (albeit on modern instruments).

Let it be noted that sets of the Beethoven symphonies have come and gone, while Toscanini and HVK have remained in print for 50-60 years straight.

As you can probably tell, I am biased toward Toscanini's approach (it's what I studied at Juilliard): IMHO, he "solved" the conductorial problems of the Ninth's final movement, removing the awkwardness in Stokowski's 78RPM set and producing a seamless tempo flow throughout. Toscanini also recognized that Beethoven's metronome marking for the last movement of the Eighth Symphony was slightly too fast, causing the players to skim the surface of the notes, rather than fulfilling them properly. Gardiner and Chailly prove the unmusicality of that tempo marking by attempting it: to my ears it sounds frantic.

Gardiner otherwise makes a fine attempt at the cycle, winning hearts and minds with sprightly tempi and interesting effects in the strings and woodwinds: his original kettle drums are most striking. Van Immerseel wins me over by preserving Toscanini's tempo choice in the last movement of VIII, and by conducting the final movement of IX according to Toscanini's patterns: an ideal HIP version IMHO. Chailly, OTOH, has original ideas throughout that unsettle me: he's entitled to his interpretation, of course, but personally I'm not comfortable with this set. De gustibus, etc.

Ormandy, Rattle & Muti are just not for me: too mushy, etc. I won't dwell on this, but other than Ormandy's not bad Eroica, this is not a style that appeals to me. Furtwangler's approach is more energetic and individual, which has it's appeal, but he runs away with the tempo in the finale of IX, scattering players to the four winds. Exciting to some, but undisciplined to my ears.

It's difficult to discuss all of these conductors in detail (hopefully that will happen in responses), and I've left out several important names (such as Klemperer, whose IX I just can't bear), and Zinman, whose excellent cycle deserves a mention.

All the above comes from MHO, and personal preferences.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Sat Jan 31, 2015 3:47 pm

We disagree about preferred interpretations, but at least we agree that older recordings have something to be said for them. :D

Just a word about Furtwängler's interpretation of Beethoven's 9th. You are probably commenting on the 1951 recording made at the opening of the Bayreuth Festival. For that, Furtwängler had at his disposal a pick-up orchestra that had never played the work together before and that was simultaneously rehearsing "Parsifal," "Die Meistersinger," and the Ring cycle. In his live performances with the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic and the Philharmonia, the players stay with him and stay together in that race to the finish line. Unlike Toscanini, he did not have the opportunity to record the symphony in the studio and make corrections, but in most of his performances no major corrections are needed. The coda is too fast? Beethoven's instruction for the closing section of the movement is "prestissimo." Undisciplined? I don't understand, unless you're referring to the orchestral playing in that one performance, which was probably underrehearsed.

More than a word, then. As far as I'm concerned, no conductor has "solved" the interpretive problems of this movement, because they are insoluble - and for this I blame Beethoven. There have been choral finales to symphonies that are coherent and "solvable," such as in Mahler's #2, but this isn't one of them. The high points of Furtwängler's interpretation of the 9th are the first and third movements, which for me are also the high points of the symphony.

Toscanini's recordings of all the Beethoven symphonies were the first to be made by a single conductor and orchestra, but not the first to be made by a single conductor. That was accomplished by Felix Weingartner in the 1930s with the Vienna Philharmonic and two London orchestras. They have only been published once as a set, that is in a single box, in Japan I believe, but all are still available, currently from Naxos. Not that this means anything, of course. :mrgreen:
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by Chalkperson » Sat Jan 31, 2015 4:38 pm

This of course boils down to personal taste, and having a conductor on this board gives him a credence we mere listeners cannot quite match.

Whilst I'm almost always in favor of a Russian conducting Shosty's Fifth, Kondrashin, Mravinsky and Jansons being my benchmarks. I see one recording I value highly missing from maestro's list.

Eugene Ormandy, his reading always has a place on my list.

Rostropovich is far from my favourite conductor, but I'd acknowledge John's points about his interpretation, although no worse example exists of how not to play Shosty's music than that of the composers son.
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by Heck148 » Sat Jan 31, 2015 5:49 pm

maestrob wrote:Toscanini wins hands down in the interpretation department with his Beethoven Symphonies, in spite of individual accounts and the controversial "too fast" tempo marking in the last movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Here's a list of conductors to be discussed:
for complete Beethoven symphonies, I have to inlclude Reiner - he did not record a complete set for any one label, but there are recordings, both commercially, released and live performance tapes of all the symphonies of Beethoven - a couple of duplications as well...
He is at the top or shares the top on virtually every LvB symphony, at least IMO...

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sun Feb 01, 2015 12:06 am

Chalkperson wrote:This of course boils down to personal taste, and having a conductor on this board gives him a credence we mere listeners cannot quite match.

Whilst I'm almost always in favor of a Russian conducting Shosty's Fifth, Kondrashin, Mravinsky and Jansons being my benchmarks. I see one recording I value highly missing from maestro's list.

Eugene Ormandy, his reading always has a place on my list.

Rostropovich is far from my favourite conductor, but I'd acknowledge John's points about his interpretation, although no worse example exists of how not to play Shosty's music than that of the composers son.
Thanks, Chalkie, for bringing up Ormandy. I agree with you and like his recording. I didn't include him because altho he's an authoritative figure, I felt that what he said musically had been said by others like Mravinsky and Kondrashin. What's also true, and perhaps I erred in not putting him on the list, is that at the time, Ormandy's sole competition in the West (i.e. non-communist) world was Bernstein, whose version I preferred at the time of issue. Ormandy was as much of an authority on Shostakovich's music as Kondrashin or Mravinsky, being close to the composer. He led the Western premieres of at least five works I can name off the top of my head (Cello Concerto I, Symphonies IV, XIII, XIV, & XV). I know, because I was there.

Ormandy's Philadelphians are also better players than Kondrashin's and Rozhdestvensky's rather scrappy bands, and better recorded.
Last edited by maestrob on Sun Feb 01, 2015 10:05 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Sun Feb 01, 2015 5:23 am

Chalkperson wrote:This of course boils down to personal taste...
In one respect, yes. But there's another criterion: fidelity to the score. By now everyone knows that I'm no literalist in such things, but it can be revealing to follow a performance with the score. We were discussing the finale of Shostakovich's 5th, and in an e-mail to a friend I went into what Shostakovich actually wrote and which recordings are most faithful to it. The results surprised me and may surprise you.


A friend has told me he prefers Bernstein's recording, presumably the 1959 version on Columbia/CBS/Sony, because he likes the end of the movement to be taken fast. Here's the whole movement:



A Rostropovich performance with the National Symphony Orchestra in Moscow is on YouTube:



What a difference! It's actually shocking. Bernstein is one of those who begins the movement fast, while Rostropovich takes a broad, grandiose tempo. In the score Shostakovich marks the opening "allegro non troppo" - fast, but not too fast - and his metronome mark calls for a tempo very close to Rostropovich's but slightly faster. After the accelando, Bernstein's and Rostropovich's tempos are the same.

At the end of the movement, in the score, the tempo has the same metronome mark as the beginning. Bernstein does indeed end in the same fast tempo he began the movement with. Rostropovich is already at the movement's tempo primo before the molto ritenuto, where he hardly slows down at all, ending the symphony slightly slower than the opening tempo, but close to it, and therefore close to what Shostakovich wrote.

Each conductor disobeys Shostakovich's tempos in his own way, then. When Bernstein conducted the symphony in Tokyo in 1979, also published by CBS/Sony and on YouTube, he began the movement essentially as in the 1959 recording but ended it somewhat slower - not as slow as Rostropovich, but not at his opening tempo either.

So what about Yevgeny Mravinsky, the conductor most closely associated with Shostakovich, who conducted the symphony's first performance and recording? He begins the movement at something like Bernstein's tempo, and ends it close to Rostropovich's. Turns out he's the least faithful to what Shostakovich wrote.

(For those who'd like to see it, the New York Philharmonic has put its conductor's score online, with Bernstein's markings in it - but he didn't use this score for either of the Columbia/CBS recordings. Here it is: http://archives.nyphil.org/index.php/ar ... 6a43dec0a7)

Of course few if any of us judge performances and recordings on how precisely faithful they are to the score. We respond to the music the performers are making in their own way, and if the composer is alive and doesn't like it (Stravinsky often didn't), I don't care and I suppose most people don't either.

maestrob has come out in favor of Toscanini's recordings of the Beethoven symphonies, despite the maestro's confession after the recording sessions for the ninth that he still didn't understand the first movement. :mrgreen: For what it's worth, Mortimer Frank, Toscanini's most tenacious admirer, agrees. The maestro was famous for performing music as written in the scores, or so he claimed. ("Is not Napoleone! Is not Buonaparte! Is allegro con brio!") But like most conductors of his generation and earlier, he actually changed the scores, mainly retouching Beethoven's orchestration here and there for greater effectiveness - for example, the trumpet line near the end of the Eroica's first movement. To tell the truth, I think the retouch is an improvement, I'm just setting the record straight.
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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sun Feb 01, 2015 9:27 am

It must be said that, in my experience, only Shostakovich V lends itself to such a wide diversity of conductorial opinion on tempo, notably in the final movement. Such a wide divergence of ideas would be anathema to me and most conductors today in any other music. I'm just saying...... :roll:

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sun Feb 01, 2015 9:37 am

Heck148 wrote:
maestrob wrote:Toscanini wins hands down in the interpretation department with his Beethoven Symphonies, in spite of individual accounts and the controversial "too fast" tempo marking in the last movement of the Eighth Symphony.

Here's a list of conductors to be discussed:
for complete Beethoven symphonies, I have to inlclude Reiner - he did not record a complete set for any one label, but there are recordings, both commercially, released and live performance tapes of all the symphonies of Beethoven - a couple of duplications as well...
He is at the top or shares the top on virtually every LvB symphony, at least IMO...
Reiner would, of course, be near the top of my list of Beethoven conductors were there a complete commercial set of symphonies available. Neither Reiner nor the Chicago players were anything less than great in that era. :D

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by maestrob » Sun Feb 01, 2015 10:15 am

There's a curiosity about the Ormandy recording (I just re-listened to it to check my memory.). At one bar before #95 of the third movement (in the old Peters edition), Ormandy changes the music, continuing the harp, which replaces the pizzicato violins. Why he did it is a mystery to me, and I don't agree with the idea. Maybe that's why I left him off the list.....

There's also a change in the Rostropovich you posted, John, where the conductor seems to eliminate the flourish at the beginning of the fourth movement (i.e. the first bar), again for no reason. Was this you-tube's fault or Rostropovich: I can't tell, but it's annoying.
Last edited by maestrob on Sun Feb 01, 2015 5:33 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Comparing Recent Recordings to Old Favorites

Post by John F » Sun Feb 01, 2015 10:47 am

That must have been left out by whoever uploaded the clip to YouTube. Rostropovich certainly doesn't cut it in his DG recording with the National Symphony, or in another YouTube version with the London Symphony.



The last movement begins at 33:43.
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